We expect car companies to design and manufacture our vehicles safely. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Manufacturers sometimes release vehicles into the marketplace before completing proper testing procedures, design vehicles poorly, and sell vehicles containing components known to fail at crucial moments.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says “94 percent of serious crashes are due to dangerous choices or errors people make behind the wheel.” But in some cases, the motor vehicle has a defect that causes a crash and serious or fatal injuries. If a car manufacturer sells a poorly manufactured, defectively designed, or unsafe car, then the manufacturer may have legal liability for the victim’s injuries.
Auto Manufacturer Safety Obligations
Every vehicle that rolls off the assembly line is supposed to maintain a high standard of safety. Only properly designed and manufactured vehicles offer maximum crashworthiness. Car companies also need to use safely-designed, manufactured and installed components such as brakes, tires, and axels.
Motor vehicle defects sometimes happen when auto manufacturers cut corners in the design and testing process of a car in order to get it on the market faster. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires all automakers to report any defects they fine to the agency within five days. This does not always happen. Manufacturers sometimes react to defects slowly because recalls are difficult and expensive. Unfortunately, by the time a manufacturer recalls a vehicle, it may have already been involved in many accidents and injuries.
Since 2009, car companies have paid over $85 million in fines for intentionally withholding defects from the public. That does not include the $66.5 million in civil penalties assessed against Toyota, nor the $1.2 billion criminal fine. Since the law gave NHTSA authority to require recalls, vehicles recalled due to safety defects number over 390 million.
Manufacturers sometimes agree to recalls, either as a result of NHTSA investigations or court orders. If a manufacturer discovers a safety defect, in addition to notifying the NHTA the manufacturer must also notify vehicle or equipment owners, dealers, and distributors. Manufacturers must also fix the problem at no charge to the owner. The NHTSA is in charge of monitoring recall campaigns. In 2017, 30.7 million units were recalled. However, car companies sold 17.6 million new vehicles, so the automotive industry recalled about 74 percent more vehicles than it delivered to consumers.
When Is a Vehicle Manufacturer Liable for a Defective Product?
The law allows victims to sue the designers and manufacturers of defective products when those products fail and cause injury.
Types of Defect
There are three general kinds of product defects:
- Design defects, in which the design of the product makes it unsafe for its intended use.
- Manufacturing defects, in which the design may have been safe, but the product was unsafe because of substandard manufacturing.
- Warning and/or label defects, in which there may be nothing wrong with the design or manufacturing of the product, but the manufacturer fails to warn consumers that there are inherent dangers involved in using the product as intended.
Legal Theories for Holding Manufacturers and Others Liable
Have you or a loved one been injured because of a defective motor vehicle or vehicle part? Then you may have a product liability claim. Under Florida law, a product maker, distributor or seller can be held liable if for the harm caused by a defective product.
Generally speaking, there are three legal theories for holding manufacturers and others legally responsible for damages caused by defective products:
- Strict liability: Product manufacturers may have liability for damages caused by their defective products even if they did not know of the defect or take any negligent action involving the product. The fact that the product has a defect and caused injury is all that is required for legal liability to attach to the manufacturer.
- Negligence: Manufacturers have a legal responsibility not to take any action that is reasonably likely to cause a product to harm others.
- Breach of warranty: If a product proves to be unsafe or unreliable as promised by the manufacturer, that defect may constitute a breach of an implicit or explicit warranty. Today, this is the least common of the legal claims people can make involving a defective product. Your attorney will need to review all of the documents from the sale of your vehicle in order to determine if there is an express or implied warranty in effect.
Proving Product Defect Liability
Generally speaking, to prove a basic product liability claim in Florida, a plaintiff must show:
- Defect or failure to warn. The product must be defective in at least one of the three ways described above—in its design, in its manufacture, or in its lack of warnings about an inherent danger.
- Injury. The plaintiff must show she suffered an injury while using the product as intended.
- Causation. The victim must show that the injury was a consequence of the defective product.
- Damage. The victim must show she suffered damage that can be compensated for under Florida law.
It’s also possible to hold a manufacturer or a dealer liable for negligence if the plaintiff can show the manufacturer owed a duty of care to the plaintiff in relation to the product, that the manufacturer breached a duty of care (such as in designing or building the product), and the product injured the plaintiff. In product liability cases, negligence tends to be more difficult to prove than strict liability, simply because it requires evidence of specific actions the manufacturer (or others involved in producing a product) took.
Types of Vehicle Defects
The general principles of product liability law discussed above apply to auto and auto parts manufacturers. Cars and car parts can have defects that affect their safety and cause accidents. Some examples include:
Defective steering components such as the steering column, power steering, hydraulics, or wiring can cause a driver to lose control and have an accident.
Fuel System Defects
Problems with the vehicle’s fuel system, such as the gas tank, fuel pump, or fuel filtration system, can cause a fire after a collision. Defects in the fuel system can lead to burns or even explosions. In 2017, Mazda recalled thousands of their vehicles due to a fuel system defect.
The tires keep the vehicle in contact with the road. They transmit traction and braking forces. They support the vehicle load, absorb road shocks and maintain the direction of travel. However, they can also be dangerous. Defective tires can lead to ruptures, sudden blowouts, tread separation, tire bead failure, zipper failures, and tire rot.
Airbags are an essential safety feature in cars, preventing many fatal injuries. They can inflate in less than a second after a collision. The airbag then functions as a cushion and helps prevent head, chest and other severe injuries during a car collision. Poor construction or problems with the bag material can also cause serious injuries in some cases. One of the largest manufacturers of vehicle airbags recently had to recall more than 70 million vehicles due to defective airbags.
Many details of vehicle performance, such as speed control, or heating and cooling systems, are now managed by a car’s internal computer. For example, a defective computer can cause the cruise control to accelerate and cause an accident.
A defective seatback can cause the seat to collapse if there is an accident. These problems are particularly serious in rear-end collisions, injuring children who may be sitting in the back seat.
It takes a great deal of wiring to control all of the electronic components of a car. If the wiring system is defective, electronic systems may malfunction while the car is in motion, creating a potentially dangerous situation.
According to NHTSA, seatbelt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives were in 2017. However, a defective seatbelt may seriously injure the occupants of the vehicle. Also, it may compromise the safety of child car seats.
What Evidence Is Needed to Support These Claims?
The vehicle and its parts are critical pieces of evidence in any car accident matter involving a defective product. Therefore, it is essential to preserve the vehicle as it was immediately after the crash. Always talk to your lawyer before making any changes or repairs, or selling it for scrap.
Other important evidence may include:
- Police reports related to the accident
- Witness statements
- Any warranties, instructions or warnings included with your vehicle
- Testimony concerning similar incidents
You may also need to present medical records showing the serious nature of your injuries. These may include:
- Other diagnostic tests
- Medical bills
- Documentation of your rehabilitation
- Interviews with medical experts
Are Other Parties Responsible for My Injuries?
In a product liability matter involving a car accident, you may also be able to hold more than one party legally responsible for your injuries, including:
- Manufacturer. Generally, the car manufacturer is a large corporation. This means it has plenty of money to defend the case, but it also means it has plenty of money to compensate you for your injuries if you can prove liability.
- Parts manufacturer. If your case involves a defective part, such as the seatbelt or tires, you may be able to sue the parts manufacturer also.
- A car dealership or automotive supply shop. Even if you were not the actual buyer of the vehicle, you might be able to hold the party who sold the vehicle or the specific defective part liable for your injuries, depending on the facts of your case.
- Middleman or shipper. Your vehicle passes through many hands before it gets to you. Any company that was part of the chain of distribution (sometimes called the chain of commerce) between the manufacturer of the defective vehicle or part and the place where the consumer purchased it may face liability for your damages.
- Used car dealer. The law on used car dealers varies from state to state, but in some cases, even if you bought a defective car from a used car dealer, the dealer may have liable.
What Compensation Can I Recover?
Defective vehicles and parts can cause serious damage, including head injuries, brain damage, broken bones, collapsed lungs, neck and back injuries, paralysis, and even death. The type and amount of compensation you might receive in a lawsuit alleging a defective product depends on the circumstances of your case. Damages may include:
- Medical bills – This includes the cost of past and future medical treatment related to your injury. You may receive compensation for emergency treatment, hospital stays, prescriptions, ongoing doctor visits, rehabilitation, medical devices, and long-term care.
- Lost income – This includes current and future lost wages. You may also be entitled to compensation for your inability to continue at your present job.
- Pain and suffering – You may experience physical and emotional suffering as a result of your injuries, for which you deserve compensation.
- Disability and disfigurement – A disabling or disfiguring injury can alter your life. You may be entitled to compensation for this type of injury.
- Loss of life enjoyment – You may have a right to compensation if you are unable to perform daily household tasks, yard work, pet care, or hobbies you previously enjoyed.
How Do I Know Who Is Responsible for My Injuries?
Auto product liability claims can be extremely complex and difficult to prove. An experienced car accident lawyer can advise you of your options and help you assess whether your car accident claim may involve defective products.
The dedicated personal injury attorneys at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, and Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, advocate on behalf of Floridians injured in car accidents, and the families of those tragically killed in them, involving defective cars and car parts. With offices across both Florida coasts, you can easily reach Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA and Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA, at 833-552-7274 (833-55-CRASH), or you may contact us online for a free consultation and case evaluation.
Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765